Schadenfreude: An Interview with Rebecca Schuman

I’m delighted to feature an interview today with Rebecca Schuman, about her new memoir, Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For. 

It comes out… TOMORROW! (Tuesday, Feb 7)

We all need a break from the endless misery of life in America just now–let Rebecca’s hilarious, smart, insightful new book be yours!

KK: Tell me about your journey from academic job seeker to author of Schadenfreude, A Love Story, your much-anticipated memoir.

RS: Sorry, I’m too busy laughing ruefully at “much-anticipated.” I hope that some people buy and read and enjoy this book, but I don’t have any delusions of authorial grandeur. I’m glad to hear that you anticipate it, though. That’s really all I need. The Kelsky demographic! Here’s my journey: After I crashed and burned in academia and Slate published “Thesis Hatement,” in 2013, several literary agents contacted me. I ended up going with the wonderful Alia Habib (also your agent!), and it was the best decision of my life. But it took almost two years to go from agent-with-interest to book deal in hand. Two years and—I’ve never talked about this publicly before—four different proposals, most of which didn’t make it out of Alia’s email inbox, because they were embarrassing. Once I eventually managed to eke out the Schadenfreude proposal in my ever-decreasing spare time, several houses were interested in earnest, almost immediately.

(Alia kept telling me she was sorry it was taking “so long,” by which she meant a week. A week! Can you academics imagine?)

My current editor at Flatiron bought the project on proposal in what the publishing industry calls a “pre-empt,” which is an offer that pre-empts an auction. When I called my family to tell them it happened, they were like, What book? I hadn’t told anyone I even had a proposal out with publishers.

Speaking of “Thesis Hatement,” that was, obviously, the piece that brought your journey out of academia to my attention. I was a fan of it, but many academics (and non-academics) weren’t. If you could write “Thesis Hatement” again now, what would you do differently?

I would have made it much more about adjuncting and less about my anger (or, at any rate, I would have channeled my anger to talk about adjuncting more, and better). I also wouldn’t have used the word “bat-shit” to describe my own research, which was my attempt to be modest but to this day brands me as an anti-intellectual who Doesn’t Believe In Her Ideas. Otherwise, no regrets.

In academic publication, the toughest part (aside from meeting deadlines) is probably contending with peer review. Is there a similar gatekeeping process in commercial publishing? In what ways did you have to compromise your vision to get this book into existence?

I had to compromise everything, all the time. Commercial publishing is not for the Ayn Rand set. (In fact, even Ayn Rand compromised in the publication of Atlas Shrugged. She refused to let them cut some long-winded speech and paid for the extra printing costs herself. But I digress. I loathe Ayn Rand, but I somehow know a lot about her. [KK:  weirdly, so do I. I even wrote about her for a Rhodes Scholarship application as an 18 year old college student!])

Anyway, this is a stone-cold fact: if you want to succeed in commercial publication, you have to be willing to do everything your agent says, and then you have to be willing to do almost everything your editor says (which may contradict your agent). I abide by the 90/10 rule. I cave to 90 percent of what they want, and then fight for the 10 percent that really matters to me. If you go in to a commercial project insisting on fighting for 100 percent of your darlings, you’ll never sell a thing, and be miserable the whole time.

You have been vocal about regretting your PhD in German—but without it, you would have neither the experience nor the literary knowledge to have written this book, which you have called, pithily (just now in an email), “a German literary and philosophical primer disguised as a tawdry sex memoir full of cigarettes and bad decisions.” Was your PhD actually instrumental to your journey?

Yes. I’ll readily admit it. I give. In the end, I can’t really be too angry about how things turned out. I wouldn’t recommend my own trajectory for anyone else, but I did, indeed, land on my feet, and I do, indeed, appreciate all of the knowledge and skills the doctorate forced me to gain. Don’t tell anyone, though. (Whoops, too late.)

When I was working with Alia to sell my book, we had a cringingly bad meeting with an editor from a famous university (*cough* Chicago *cough*) press, which contrasted painfully with the highly efficient and professional meetings we had with editors from commercial presses. If there was ever anything that drove home that final nail in the coffin of academia for me, it was that meeting with that smugly clueless (or was it cluelessly smug) editor, who was living in this weird fantasy of elite status that was totally divorced from his and his press’s actual position vis-a-vis me and my book manuscript! To spell it out, he thought he was dealing with a desperate and almost totally powerless academic… and not somebody with a large platform, a highly-marketable (in certain circles) manuscript, and plenty of competing options.  I’d never really seen the tattered elitism of academic so painfully displayed.  Hey, look what I just did, I used a “question” as an opportunity to make a long-winded speech about my own experience. You can take the person out of academia but…

So typical! They must have been gobsmacked at your reaction. “Wait, you’re NOT bowing and scraping for poorly-paid or completely unpaid PUBLICATION? BEGONE, PLEB!” Ha.

Did you have any surprising or weird experiences in the commercial publication process—from fomenting idea to finished book on the shelf—that you’ve never told anyone, that you want academics to know about?

Here’s an embarrassing story, and it also has to do with unfortunate intersections of academic and commercial publication. I’ve never told it in public before. My first idea for a crossover book was a non-academic introduction to German literature and philosophy. It was 2013 and I had a chip on my shoulder about proving I was smart. I wrote three painstaking chapters of this project on spec. I was just barely out of academia, so to me these chapters were so accessible, so edgy, and would so scandalize my academic peers because of their regular-person prose and openly anti-academic bent. Well, the commercial publishers passed. To the one they found it “way too academic.” The closest I got was the trade imprint of a well-known academic house—but, much to my horror and surprise, they submitted it to peer review. This was when I was at peak infamy with academics and academia, just spewing bile from every rooftop, so you can imagine the peer review was scathing. The funniest part was that the publisher didn’t care. They still wanted to buy it—it just fell through at acquisitions for budget reasons. But in the end I’m glad that project fizzled. Schadenfreude still snuck a lot of that literature and philosophy in, but it’s woven into (what I hope is) a rollicking narrative.

Your critics often complain that you are too self-absorbed, and that your critiques of academia would have been more powerful if they’d not focused so much on your personal story. What does a memoir—the most navel-gazing of all genres—possibly have to offer these readers (or hate-readers)?

This is an interesting dilemma, because even in answering this question I sound self-absorbed, especially now, under the constant noxious cloud of our new authoritarian regime. Let me digress for a second and say that of course it is unbelievably awkward to be promoting a memoir at this historical juncture. But I believe writing of this kind is still essential. My thinking is: Donald Fucking Trump is ruining the world at precipitous speed, but one thing we can use to fight him is our freedom of artistic expression. Everyone should go out and buy (or check out!) my book and ALL the books, especially by authors of color, women, LGBT authors, Muslim authors, immigrant authors—any voice that Donald Fucking Trump wants to marginalize and silence, we should amplify. Do I hope everyone will consider my voice among this chorus? Yes!

OK, digression over. I write memoir because that’s the genre I most like to read. I am always honored when honest people are willing to reveal their vulnerabilities and to let readers, strangers, into their lives. I don’t find it exhibitionistic. I find it brave and exhilarating (when other people do it). I admire this kind of writing in other people, so it’s only natural that I would attempt it myself. Often I relate to writers’ personal struggles and triumphs, but just as often I don’t, and I still love their stories. I read a memoir or book of personal essays a week, almost always by women: Shonda Rimes, Meghan Daum, Roxane Gay, Lindy West, Jessica Valenti, Felicia Day, Sarah Hepola. Love them all. I fully understand if memoir isn’t someone’s bag, but for many of us, using our personal stories lends an urgency and immediacy—and, yes, bravery—to our opinions. The other reason I write about myself is that I have a really scathing sense of humor, and it’s nasty to use it on other people.

Besides writing and marketing this book, what are you doing with yourself?

Still writing—for Slate, the Chronicle, the Atlantic, The Hairpin, and more. I’m spending a lot of 2017 doing research and translation for the Jewish Museum of Switzerland. But primarily, I am a full-time parent to a spirited and sensitive kid who just turned two, and I’m not ashamed to say I’m hanging on by my fingernails most of the time. I have limited child care, and I have to be laser-focused during the few hours a week I do get to work. The fact that I wrote this book with a newborn on my chest, and revised it with a crawling dervish who wouldn’t sleep, and did an intense round of edits (basically rewrote the whole thing in nine weeks) while my kid was teething molars in agony—you know what? That was fucking heroic. All parents who somehow eke out any work outside of their caregiving are heroes. I salute you all. And I salute myself.

What’s your longer term life plan going forward?


Any last advice for the Ph.D. crowd?

Funnily enough, also “survive.”

Thanks for interviewing me, Karen. It’s always a pleasure.  [KK: the pleasure is mine! Best of luck with the book, and I hope you get to do a book tour!]

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